Unveiling a New (Old) Printing Press

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On January 30, McGill welcomed the revival of a 19th century Columbian printing press on the 4th floor of Mclennan Library in the Rare Books Collection. The  printing press, which was brought over to McGill in the 1950s by librarian Richard Pennington, was shown to the public for the first time since the 1970s, inaugurating the McGill Book Arts Lab.

Large groups of students, faculty, and other McGill community members filtered into a sold-out event to witness the use of the Columbian Printing Press in action. The press, which was built in 1821– the same year as McGill– was restored thanks to a grant on the part of the dean’s innovation fund. 

The steel press, as explained by Curator of the History of Printing collection at Rare Books and Special Collections Ann Marie Holland, was invented by George Clymer as a more efficient alternative to the wood press. It is now part of McGill’s William Colgate History of Printing Collection, which is one of the largest of its kind in Canada, containing over 1300 artefacts.

McGill Libraries Dean Colleen Cook, spoke at the event, along with several colleagues, about the restoration process. Cook took special pride in the press; it’s restoration was financed by the Dean’s Library Fund.

“This is a space where all librarians collide no matter what kind of librarians we are. This is why we became librarians… Everything old is new again, and it’s wonderful that this magnificent press can have a second life,” she explained.

English Professor Eli MacLaren, who also spoke at the event, explained that “the decision to make [the press] operational will allow faculty in various departments and schools at McGill to teach and demonstrate the history of book and printing in a vivid hands-on way.” 

The press will be used in various workshops through Rare & Special Collections, Osler, Art, and Archives events, and students are invited to make an appointment to get a tour of the press.

At the event, small groups were led into a private hallway to witness the press in action, which involved a system of levers in pulleys to make a crisp, clear, print. At the end of the night, everyone at the event went home with a hand-printed certificate that read: “The Columbian Press. The earliest surviving model in North America. Invented by George Clymer of Philadelphia in 1813. Our copy was manufactured in 1821 in England. Restored in 2019.”

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